Restaurants are among the businesses that have been most impacted during the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic and its upheaval of our economic, social and recreational lives. 

The Quad Community Press reached out to several independent local restaurants to ask how they are dealing with this unprecedented situation. The two businesses that responded are located in Circle Pines and Lexington, respectively: Rusty Cow Cafe and Blue Collar Barbeque. 

Rusty Cow, owned by Darrell Carlberg, with Christopher Rossi as proprietor, opened in February and had to close March 16. It reopened June 22 at 50% capacity, Carlberg said.

This restaurant was formerly called Creamery Crossing, and had locations in Circle Pines and Isanti. The latter was recently closed.

What Rusty Cow offers, said Carlberg, is “customer service; friendly dedicated staff; anticipating (customers’) needs before they do; clean restrooms, restaurant and entrances; and hot, crazy-good food.”

Barely a month into opening, the pandemic and stay-at-home order intervened.

“We were just getting started at this location and had great momentum going with the staff and customers,” Carlberg said. “It was heartbreaking to the employees and our customers not knowing when we would be back.”

This setback was actually a double whammy for them.

“The former restaurant had been closed abruptly in October by previous owners,” Carlberg said, “so these employees and customers were shut down from October to February — then had to shut down again. It has been a roller coaster for the staff and customers.”

Rusty Cow revised its way of thinking, Carlberg said, to improve safety for everyone, including sanitation, to-go containers, changes to dining room seating and staffing.

“It is difficult to staff with the reduced seating and our customers not being able to wait to be seated inside with social distancing.”

On the upside: “We have the greatest team of employees, so we were confident that we would be fine. Darrell and myself bring out the best in people.”

Rusty Cow is doing about 60% of the business it formerly had, and managed to keep all its employees except for two who did not return. They have 23 employees.

Most of the regular customers have returned, Carlberg said, except for older ones especially concerned about COVID-19.

“We have several large senior buildings in the immediate area and many of those (customers) have not returned as of yet. They are anxious to get out again and be with their friends and family.”

Assistance provided by the government has been helpful, Carlberg said, but much more has to be done for small businesses.

“So many have taken huge hits to their businesses with all the restrictions and expectations. It is difficult to operate not knowing day to day how to survive financially with the extra expenses, and now the assistance from the government has halted.”

Blue Collar BBQ, meanwhile, never closed, but did cut back on staff while maintaining its take-out service, said Pit Master Mark Born, who has owned the business for over 6 1/2 years.

This restaurant takes pride in making everything in-house — which is problematic during the pandemic.

“We never use frozen meats. Even with the supply chain book as it is,” he said. “We spend extra time searching for high-quality products for our customers.

“Now, sometimes it is very hard to find what we need. Then the supply will be good for a couple of weeks; then some other item will be hard to find.”

It was painful to cut staff, Born said, but the laid-off employees had a nice consolation as “they started making more on unemployment than they would have if they were working.” 

Born plans to build a new restaurant and admits to being apprehensive about it now. 

“The bright spot is, we have a very loyal customer base that is looking forward to our new place.”

Blue Collar BBQ had 10 to 12 employees previously and is now back to seven after recently calling two more back to work. “But we will need a lot more when we open the new place,” he said.

The business has kept up with the various phases of state mandates and rules, Born said. One employee spends much of his time keeping track of the rules, which seem to “change daily.”

Born reports that all his regular customers have kept coming, but the big corporate functions the restaurant normally caters have decreased substantially. Those firms, he explains, are allowing employees to work from home. However, many employees have shown up on their own to pick up a dinner or meat to cook themselves. “Again, loyal customers,” he said.

Blue Collar BBQ has not received any government aid. 

“It’s kind of up to us to carry the load," Born said. "We have to keep working at maintaining our high standards and let the customers know we appreciate their support.”

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